Opera Legend Lucine Amara Feted at Surprise 90th Birthday

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By Florence Avakian

NEW YORK — From the moment legendary opera diva Lucine Amara walked in to her surprise 90th birthday party, to the last spirited and musical tributes, the event was a joyous and glittering affair.

Taking place on Monday evening March 2, at the Diocesan Center, close to 100 invited friends, colleagues and admirers had come — from Florida, Delaware, upstate New York and other faraway locations — to honor the internationally acclaimed singer, who has performed in 882 productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during 41 years, along with 57 radio broadcasts, and many recordings to her credit.

And in the last 20 years, Amara has been the artistic director and guiding light of the Verismo Opera in Fort Lee, NJ, helping and inspiring young budding artists in their careers.

On the day of her birthday, March 1, New Jersey’s Bergen Record published a front-page profile of her in its Better Living section, focusing on why she was not only the leading star of countless productions at the Metropolitan Opera, but also the Met’s “reliable pinch-hitter” when there was a cancellation. Notable was the time when with a 102 fever, Amara had to be roused from a sickbed to play in “Die Meistersinger” because no one else could sing it. She was the only artist who could step in and sing any role.

As Amara stepped out of the elevator on March 2, with her daughter, singer Evelyn La Quaif, who had planned and organized the surprise tribute, her warm smile turned to utter disbelief, as the crowd dressed in their tuxedos and gowns sang a rousing Happy Birthday to her. “I’m glad Evelyn told me to wear my lashes,” she gushed happily in her typically ebullient manner, as she wiped away tears. “This is the biggest surprise of my life.”

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On Monday evening, the banquet hall had been transformed into a gala setting with blown up framed photos of her with the Met’s celebrated former general manager Sir Rudolph Bing, Charles Aznavour, Anita Darian and several fellow performers. Running on a screen throughout the evening were stills of her performances from the time she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in November 1950. And hanging from the ceiling were huge balloons depicting champagne glasses and musical instruments. The dinner tables were festooned with large white flower bouquets.

Sitting with Amara and her daughter at the head table, topped with a multi-layered birthday cake decorated with the titles of some of the many operatic leads she had sung, were three of her well known fellow Met performers, including Rosalind Elias, Elaine Malbin and Eleanor Ross.

Among other dignitaries present were Archbishop Yeghishe Gizirian, St. Vartan Cathedral Dean the Very Rev. Mamigon Kiledjian, and benefactor and supporter of the arts Ardemis Nazarian who had quietly made a large donation to the Verismo Opera Co. as a birthday gift to the honoree. Also present were film star Marni Nixon, Dr. Robert Campbell, makeup artist Victor Caligari and Anthony Morss, conductor of the Verismo Opera Company. Met luminary Martina Arroyo was among many who had sent congratulatory messages.

Opening the program, Kiledjian read a special message from the Diocesan Primate Archbishop Khajag Barsamian “to the Great Lucine Amara” on her 90th birthday, calling her “a distinguished artist, humanitarian and an exemplary daughter of the Armenian Church” He extolled her constant presence and devotion which he said has been “a jewel in the crown” of this center. “She has been deeply involved in the cathedral since the very beginning, being instrumental in determining the way it looks and functions. As a community, we all felt a part of her great artistic achievements. She is another precious gift of our community to the wider world, and to posterity.”

The evening then became a spontaneous humorous repartee between the honoree and the guests, with Amara piping in with personal stories. “On my first visit to Armenia, they asked me to sing the lead roles in both ‘Aida’ and ‘Il Trovatore’ at the Yerevan Opera House because they thought I was Italian due to my name, Amara,” she remembered.

“That was changed when I found out that ‘Trovatore’ would be sung in Armenian. They then asked me to do two ‘Aidas,’ instead of ‘Trovatore.’ Was I relieved,” she declared, as the crowd roared with laughter. And with the Opera House packed to bursting including the aisles, she asked where the fire exits were. “There are no fire exits tonight,” came the manager’s reply.

Director of the Verismo Opera Gianni Simone, who had come to America from Italy in 1971, recalled that as a lover of classical music, and especially of two of his favorite operas, Cavalleria and Pagliacci, he first heard Lucine. “She belongs to the era of the Golden Age of Singing, the era of mostri sacri (sacred monsters). These are the artists who have greatly impacted the world of Grand Opera.”

Referring to some of the Met artists who were “busy in the gossip pages”, he said Lucine, on the other hand, “was on stage creating some of the most incredible roles.” He pointed out a review of one of Lucine’s eight Aida performances in Rome’s Baths of Caracalla on July 1, 1954, which wrote of Egypt’s former King Fuad II “crying profusely. He was so profoundly moved that he could no longer stay for the rest of the performance.”

Gianni Simone also revealed that on April 30, Amara will be honored with the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the State of New Jersey. “Thank you Lucine for all the great performances you have given us over the years, and may the Lord reward you for all the joy and passion you have shared with us,” he said to loud applause.

The evening also became one of musical delights as young talents of the Verismo Opera Company, displaying the inspiring spirit of the honoree, rose and shared operatic solos, with the guests spontaneously joining in the choruses with joyous singing.

With the audience cheering her on, Lucine Amara then rose and graciously sang with great emotion, Never Forget Me, When I Have Sung My Songs for You, Vienna My City of Dreams and O Mio Bambino, bringing many to tears, and garnering a standing ovation lasting several minutes. “I hope I can sing this well when I’m a 100,” she quipped to more thunderous cheering.

Her daughter, Evelyn, who was in tears during Amara’s performance, announced that the Daughters of Vartan, in San Diego, last year, had named Lucine Amara as the first recipient of their “Woman of the Year Award.” She added, “those who follow will have a hard act to follow.”

Among the many guests who were present for this gala, and have known and admired Lucine Amara for decades, was longtime television columnist for The New York Daily News, George Maksian. In 1993, he staged a performance called “Live at the Diocese,” in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Armenian Diocese, featuring several outstanding Armenian-American artists, including Amara.

Following this birthday celebration, he commented that the piece de resistance was the front page tribute to her in New Jersey’s Bergen Record on the day of her birthday. “During this birthday party, I never saw Lucine looking so happy,” he said. “The highlight was her singing which she so graciously shared. She couldn’t stop singing which thrilled the audience. She had a ball, and so did we all.”

 

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